When love isn’t enough

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When you have an ambivalent relationship with your parents, their deaths can bring complications.

I wrote an article for the Telegraph recently, about what happened when my mother in law died, and I thought some of the comments that were posted following it were kind of interesting.

I wrote and filed this copy quite a while ago and have only just got round to reading it online – I generally prefer not to read articles once they’re sent. But death is a touchy subject and it certainly touched a nerve with some readers. I find it interesting that so many people just assume that you love your parents and that your instinct will be to rush to their side. 

But what if you don’t, and it isn’t?

My husband’s difficult relationship with his mother is a private matter between the two of them, but as an example of filial piety, we might look instead at the relationship I had with mine.

When my mother became terminally ill in 2006, she was expected to live only a few weeks. 

I hadn’t seen her for 15 years and for the first 10 of those, we hadn’t spoken either. We had only lately, and to my reluctance, been in intermittent contact for a few years and I was still largely avoiding her on the phone. In fact, I now realise, I’d only seen her a dozen times since I left home in 1981 – 25 years earlier.

Deciding whether or not to see her now that she was sick was a tricky matter because the truth is, deep down I was still terrified of her.

My husband was livid that I’d even consider it. "She’s done you enough damage," he kept saying.

And yet, and yet. You only get one mother and a person wants to do the right thing – I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life regretting that I hadn’t gone, and I supposed that her illness had probably reduced her ability to do me any real damage. 

Whenever I suggested visiting, however, she put me off, saying to come later when she was feeling better. Since I knew she would never be feeling better, I wasn’t sure if she really didn’t know she was dying, or was trying to keep it from me. Or simply wanted to avoid me. I don’t know to this day.

But in the end, when ‘the call’ came, from my aunt, saying: "If you want to see her again, come now," I didn’t hesitate. We got straight in the car. 

It takes 17 hours door to door from our home to my mother’s home in the North (we’re not quite – as one commentator on my article suggested – ‘a few minutes’ from the UK), and once back in Blighty I phoned repeatedly to see if she was still with us. 

Indeed she was. I arrived, kissed her a brisk hello and sat down for – who knows what? 

I mean, I think she was pleased to see me, but it was hard to tell. The DH was aghast at what he saw as her indifference. I just thought she was ill. Besides, it was what I’d expected. We are not, and never were, that sort of family. We were the sort of family that sat at opposite sides of the room.

But at least she and I didn’t argue. Nor did we talk about anything deep (some of my friends fondly imagined there would be some sort of rapprochement and lots of earnest conversations but I knew that would never be). We spoke instead about the weather and the flowers in the garden. She dozed from the morphine, I read a magazine. Thus ended the first day. The DH and I had to leave quite early to find a hotel, because she refused to let us stay in her flat (not just us – anyone else, either. Afraid we’d nick her stuff).

The second day I spent more time with her, helping her to eat at one point, but I don’t remember much else. Much of the time she was asleep. My aunts – my father’s sisters – visited, and I chatted to them. And my mother’s husband (my father is long-dead) came, but she didn’t want to see him because he was too weepy. At one point my mother went to chapel (she was always very religious).

On day three she was more alert, as they had changed her medication, but the DH and I had to leave for the ferry back to France, so we chatted for only half an hour or so.  I asked her if she would see my sister (they weren’t speaking and mother had previously threatened her with a court order if she came near her), but she wouldn’t ask her to come, and my sister would not come unasked. And so we left. 

An hour later, on the M1, the DH and I were almost killed by an articulated lorry, leaving me with whiplash and him sleepless and on tranquilisers for months. For obvious reasons, he became my main priority for the next few months. 

Far from dying in the next 24 hours, as expected, my mother lived another five weeks, even suffering a stroke and being rushed to casualty at one point, as if they could ‘save’ her. My brother in the south of England made many fraught journeys north. My other brother on the Isle of Wight saw her once, I think (he’s rarely seen anyone in the family since the late 1970s). My sister, who had been her carer for over a decade and lived only a mile away, didn’t see her at all.

Meanwhile, from France, I underwent physio for my damaged neck, sent books and flowers and music, phoned every day (she was often asleep and I couldn’t speak to her) and ummed and ahed over making another visit.

But to tell the truth, I just couldn’t see the point. She was asleep much of the time now, and surrounded by other relatives and I didn’t feel that my particular presence would make that much of a difference to her. And for myself, I didn’t feel the need – I had said goodbye to her many years before, and I took the opportunity now to say goodbye every day. 

It is a difficult decision though, and part of me now regrets not going to see her again, just so that I could be absolutely sure of her indifference, rather than just supposing it. 

When she died, I cried, of course. I wouldn’t wish her death on my worst enemy, and she had been alone, too, which was very sad – for all my brother’s efforts he was either en route or in the south when she died. And there is also the knowledge that once someone is gone, so is any hope that things might ever be better. The failed relationship is all that there is.

So, as I said, I find it interesting, the reactions to my article, that gave me ‘2 out of 10 and a C-minus for effort’, or that said I was ‘wrong’ not to encourage my husband to go and see his dying mother, assuming that in some way, I was holding him back. I wonder sometimes if other people simply lead uncomplicated lives and don’t realise that for some of us, life and relationships remain a more complex issue.


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